Can the Gamecocks Become a Perennial Contender in the SEC?

Marcus Lattimore South Carolina Gamecocks Football SEC

The South Carolina Gamecocks have come a long way since joining the SEC in 1992. The always loyal Gamecock faithful have suffered notoriously for decades, even before joining the SEC. Prior to the 2010 season, the shining moments in South Carolina history were pretty much limited to George Rogers and the “Black Death” defense in the 1980’s. “Wait ‘til next year” became the Gamecocks unofficial moniker. For the sake of Gamecock fans reading this, I will leave it at that.

Things began to change in 1999 when the legendary “Dr.” Lou Holtz arrived in Columbia. Holtz got things headed in the right direction in 2000 and 2001 when he was able to turn a team from (0-11) to (8-4) and record the program’s first ever bowl wins with back to back Outback Bowl victories over Ohio State. Holtz was able to build up the talent base within the program, and generally end the losing culture that had set in during the Sparky Woods and Brad Scott eras. Nevertheless, Holtz was unable to get over the proverbial hump.

In 2005, Steve Spurrier took over the reigns as the head ball coach at South Carolina. Fans expected that Spurrier’s “fun-n-gun”, turned “cock-n-fire” offense, that he had ran at Florida would translate quickly into championships for the Cocks. Nevertheless, Spurrier’s first five teams never exceeded the (8-5) record posted in 2006. In 2010 things changed. For the first time since joining the SEC, the Gamecocks defeated all three SEC East powerhouses: Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia. The Gamecocks went on to play in the SEC championship game for the first time after posting a (5-3) record in conference.

Now the question becomes, can the Gamecocks become a perennial contender in the SEC East? Or was 2010 a fluke, something that can only happen with the perfect storm? Below I analyze the factors working in favor and against the Gamecocks quest to join the elite in the SEC.

Factors Working In Their Favor

Local Talent: South Carolina has great high school football. It is a built in advantage to have so much homegrown talent. Spurrier has done a great job of keeping talent in state. See freshman phenom Marcus Lattimore and Alshon “Kiffin pumps my gas” Jeffrey. If the Gamecocks could lock down in-state recruiting, they could easily reload year after year.

Returning Talent: The talent Spurrier has been able to stockpile at USC ensures that the Gamecocks can remain competitive in the SEC at least for a couple of years. The 2011 Gamecocks return a stable of starters from last year’s team, including Lattimore, Jeffery, Steven Garcia, and Stephon Gilmore. The Cocks look set to make another run in the wide open SEC East.

Steve Spurrier: The Ole Ball Coach knows what he’s doing. He won an ACC Championship at Duke for crying out loud. Not to mention his success at Florida. Having a legend as a head coach inspires confidence in players, recruits and fans alike. As long as Spurrier is at South Carolina, they have a chance.

Instability at SEC East Powers: The SEC East has not been this weak since the conference divided into divisions in 1992. Florida is going through a coaching change. Nobody knows what Will Muschamp is capable of doing as a head coach. Tennessee is on their 3rd coach in 4 years and has suffered through a stretch of mediocrity unseen on Rocky Top in over two decades. Derek Dooley looks to have what it takes, but he is far from a proven commodity. Georgia’s Mark Richt might have the hottest seat in the SEC. A repeat performance of 2010 will land the Georgia coach in the unemployment line. The opportunity is there for the Gamecocks to elevate into the upper echelon of the SEC. Now is the time to take advantage.

What have you done for me lately: Thankfully for the Gamecocks, recruits are 17-18 years old. That means that these recruits were 6 or 7 years old when the Cocks were 0 and 11. For the majority of their lives, South Carolina has been a respectable program. Most importantly, they only care about what has happened in the last couple of years. What have they done for me lately? Well for one, won an SEC East championship. This is a great selling point on the recruiting trail.

Fan support: Gamecock fans show up religiously to Williams-Brice Stadium every fall. The Gamecocks ranked 17th in the nation in home football attendance in 2010 with an average of 76,668. Some of them show up for the tailgate and social scene. By the way, the tailgating is great despite the terrible location of the stadium. If you haven’t been, you should make an effort to go. Lowcountry boil, oysters, and beautiful women in black cocktail dresses can never be a bad thing. Nevertheless, most fans are there to cheer on their beloved gamecocks, and of course yell “cocks” at the top of their lungs.

South Carolina Gamecocks Marcus Lattimore SEC Football

Factors Working Against Them

History: Not a whole lot needs to be said here. The Gamecocks have won only 4 bowl games in their entire history. They have not won a conference championship since winning the ACC in 1969. South Carolina’s all time mark of 543–539–44 ranks only slightly above Vanderbilt and Mississippi State in the SEC. Since the division split in ‘92, the Gators have won the East 10 times. The Vols have won it 5 times. The Bulldogs have won it 3 times. The Cocks have now won it once. Vandy and Kentucky are still shut out. Although, as stated above, it’s a “what have you done for me lately” world, this is still a lot of losing to overcome. Coaches, players, and fans must be completely committed to winning. This leads me to my next point.

Facilities: In order to recruit the best prospects, teams must have the best facilities. The facilities at South Carolina simply do not compare to those at Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, or LSU. Williams-Brice Stadium is okay, but it is significantly smaller than all of the aforementioned schools. There is nothing that catches your eye when you are outside or inside of the stadium. Without championship banners everywhere to woo recruits, you must do something to upgrade its appearance. Also, the stadium is located on the state fairgrounds, and lacks the charm of most other SEC on-campus stadiums.

Furthermore, these other schools put millions every year into upgrading their practice facilities. Tennessee, who already boasts a top notch indoor practice facility, is in the process of spending $30 million more to have the best in the country. SEC football is like the Cold War. It is an arms race. All the major schools are raising money, building new facilities, and constantly seeking to outdo one another. If South Carolina doesn’t financially commit to winning, they will get left further behind. I’m sure long term plans are in place in Columbia, but it’s time to make it happen.

The SEC: The SEC is indisputably the toughest conference in the country. It is difficult to see the Gamecocks competing year in and year out with Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia in the East. Spurrier has undoubtedly upgraded South Carolina’s recruiting. However, they still trail Auburn, Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Tennesee in recruiting rankings year in and year out. When other teams are getting better recruits, it’s difficult to beat them on a yearly basis.

2010 was the perfect recipe for the Cocks to step up and get to Atlanta. All three SEC East powers were down. Although they managed to make it to Atlanta, the Cocks did not do so in impressive fashion. As one Gamecock friend of mine said to me after the Gamecocks loss to Kentucky, “we aren’t gonna do this the easy way, we’re gonna do it the gamecock way.”In 2010 the Gamecocks suffered an embarrassing loss to Kentucky, a blowout loss to Arkansas, a blowout loss to Auburn in the SECCG, and another uninspiring loss to Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A bowl. The manner in which the Cocks won the East leads critics to believe that it was just an aberration.

Clemson: Yes, I know, South Carolina has beaten Clemson two years in a row. Nevertheless, the Tigers still managed to pull in a far superior recruiting class than the Cocks in 2011. If you cannot dominate your own state in recruiting, it’s going to be hard to compete for SEC Championships on a consistent basis. The Gamecocks must assert themselves as the clearly dominant program in the Palmetto State. Beating the tigers must become a yearly tradition if USC wishes to join the SEC elite.

Spurrier’s Age: Steve Spurrier is 65 years old. Who knows how much longer Darth Visor will roam the sidelines of Williams-Brice. The Gamecocks must have a plan in place for the moment when Spurrier retires to the golf course. The Cocks cannot afford to drop off when Spurrier leaves. This will be a crucial hire for the program.

Conclusion: Obviously no one knows what the future of South Carolina’s program holds. Nevertheless, I foresee much more of the same from the University of South Carolina. I think they will settle into being a consistently average SEC football team. 7 to 8 win seasons will become the norm in Columbia, with a 9 or 10 win season scattered in every five or six years. For every 9 or 10 win season, there will most likely be a 5 win season. The Gamecocks are simply in too tough of a conference to compete for championships year in and year out. Of course if they do, I will eat my fair share of crow. But please Gamecock fans, serve me my crow with Memphis style dry rub and sauce, not Carolina Gold.